Feeling Depressed? Try Saffron, Not Prozac

Nutritional expert Dr. Gil Joseph Shachar offers advice on the foods that can improve your health and combat various problems

Rachel Talshir
Rachel Talshir
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Women working in a saffron field in Afghanistan. Although it’s very expensive, just sniffing saffron for 20 minutes can reduce anxiety levels.
Women working in a saffron field in Afghanistan. Although it’s very expensive, just sniffing saffron for 20 minutes can reduce anxiety levels.Credit: Hoshang Hashimi, AP
Rachel Talshir
Rachel Talshir

The publication (in Hebrew) of my article “The high priestess of health has got cancer,” about the illness of nutritionist Tziona Melman (aka The Happy Planet Chef), prompted many reactions. Among others, people asked whether nutrition can be a means of coping with anxiety, depression, insomnia and similar emotional difficulties that befall us in life. I presented these questions to several experts and received various replies, some of them contradictory. I have chosen to highlight the answers of Dr. Gil Joseph Shachar, an expert on nutritional medicine and head of the Rambam Medicine Center in Haifa.

When asked whether it’s possible to improve these conditions by altering our diet, Shachar says: “Unequivocally, yes.” However, this has to be accompanied by psychological-emotional work, and adopting healthy and positive thought patterns. “For example, there is a great deal of scientific evidence to the effect that an omega-3 deficiency can affect your mood to the point of depression,” he explains. “On the other hand, recent studies have shown that a diet with a surplus of the fatty acid omega-6 is actually related to a despondent mood, as opposed to cases in which the amount of omega-6 has been restricted. The most concentrated natural sources of omega-6 are animal products and oils produced from seeds (such as sunflower, corn, soy and canola).

“This is consistent with other studies which found that a significant reduction in [eating] animal products led to an improvement in [a person’s] mood. For example, a study published in 2015 – conducted on nearly 300 employees in U.S. insurance companies – found that a vegan diet significantly reduced their level of depression, anxiety and fatigue, and improved their sense of vitality.”

So it’s a good idea to become vegan?

“The answer is complex. For example, many studies have found a higher frequency of depression in people with a low level of cholesterol. There was a disparity of tens and even hundreds of percentage points between those with the highest cholesterol level and those with the lowest. This link between very low cholesterol levels and depression was consistent for both men and women. Over time, a vegan diet, which contains no cholesterol at all, usually leads to lower levels of cholesterol – too low, quite often. In addition, in part of the population, the self-production of cholesterol in the liver is relatively low, for genetic reasons. This means that veganism is probably not suitable for everyone.”

Are there specific foods that work in the same way as antidepressants?

“Yes. Some antidepressants operate by means of a mechanism that inhibits MAO enzymes, which are responsible for breaking down the serotonin and dopamine in the brain. If we inhibit it, the level of these neurotransmitters – which are essential in preventing depression – will increase and your mood will improve. Berries, grapes, apples, onions and green tea have such an effect. So do spices such as cinnamon, cloves, oregano and nutmeg. It’s important to note, however, that the influence of these foods on the MAO enzyme is not as great as that of the synthetic drugs that use this mechanism.”

Are there more concentrated foods that can actually replace antidepressants?

Dr. Gil Joseph Shachar.Credit: Rami Shllush

“In a study conducted in 2005, 40 adults suffering from light to moderate depression were randomly divided into two groups. One group received Prozac and the other received an alcoholic extract of saffron. Saffron – a spice that’s produced from the flower of the saffron crocus – was found to be just as effective as the Prozac.

“Saffron is not cheap – in fact, it’s the most expensive spice in the world [up to $10,000 per pound]. But as it happens, there’s also a cheaper option: A study from 2011 found that sniffing saffron for 20 minutes also resulted in significant drops in the level of stress hormones and an improvement in anxiety symptoms among women, compared to women who sniffed a placebo.”

What about fish? After all, it contains a lot of omega-3.

“True, but fish is a controversial food. On the one hand, fish do contain a large quantity of EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids. On the other hand, fish is the most contaminated food on the planet, with heavy metals and PCB poisons – which increase the risk of cancer and neurodegenerative diseases. In my opinion, moderate consumption (once or twice a week) of small fish, which contain less poison, is a reasonable compromise.”

Are there other mood-enhancing foods?

“Many people reported the disappearance of depression after they refrained from eating gluten. I haven’t seen any serious studies on that, but it’s possible that this positive effect comes from undiagnosed cases of celiac disease. The link between celiac and depression is clear: The frequency of depression among celiac sufferers is significantly higher than among the general population, and there’s a correlation in the opposite direction as well – celiac is discovered more frequently among those suffering from depression. It’s possible that there’s damage to the mucous membrane in celiac sufferers’ digestive systems that causes nutritional deficiencies, which in turn are liable to cause depression.

“In any case, people who suffer from depression should try to avoid gluten for a few months. If it is gluten that’s responsible for damage to the intestinal mucous membrane, avoiding gluten will heal the membrane, improve absorption and reduce the symptoms of depression. In order to check whether it’s really the gluten, you should avoid it for at least six months – to enable the restoration of reserves of vitamins and minerals whose absorption may have been affected.”

Is there any food that helps with insomnia?

“Typically, diet alone will not be sufficient to overcome sleep problems, and there’s a need for emotional-psychological work to adopt positive and optimistic thinking. Physical exercise is also very helpful.

“I don’t know of a specific study about foods that have proved beneficial for insomnia. But a varied diet, rich in fruit, vegetables, green leaves, green shoots, legumes, nuts and almonds, can definitely help.”

What to eat...

The following is a summary of Shachar’s nutritional recommendations, which he believes will improve your mood, reduce the risk of depression and reduce anxiety levels:

1. Eat lots of fruit and vegetables.

2. Reduce your consumption of animal-based products, which are rich in omega-6 – a fatty acid that competes with omega-3 (which is essential for mental and emotional health).

3. Avoid fats derived from seeds, which are rich in omega-6. These include oils produced from sunflower, corn, soya and canola.

4. Eat fish, but only once or twice a week. Small saltwater fish such as sardines are preferable.

5. Eating high-quality chocolate (100 percent cocoa), together with a natural source of sugar such as dates, will increase the level of serotonin in the brain. This is especially recommended for those with a tendency toward depression, or those who have suffered from depression in the past.

6. Drink coffee. Coffee also has its disadvantages, but for people who suffer from depression or the risk of depression, research shows that the pros outweigh the cons.

7. Avoid artificial sweeteners.

8. Eat a lot of the following types of vegetables: orange vegetables like carrots, sweet potatoes, pumpkins and squash, as well as green leaves.

9. Eat a lot of foods rich in antioxidants, such as sunflower, broccoli and kale shoots. The best fruits are berries, which are very rich in antioxidants.

10. Use a lot of spices. They are also very rich in antioxidants and some can inhibit the enzyme that breaks down serotonin.

11. Consume, or at least sniff, saffron in cases of depression or anxiety.

12. It’s worth trying to avoid gluten for at least six months, to see whether there’s an improvement in symptoms of depression or anxiety.

13. Physical exercise can be just as effective as antidepressants. Regular activity is one of the best defenses against depression and is also a treatment for it.

14. The simple belief that everything that happens to us in life is for the best, even if we don’t understand how, is a great recipe for producing a sense of joie de vivre. Our sages even went so far as to say that a person who believes everything that happens to him is for the best will understand in his lifetime how the events that occurred really were for the best.

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